In Pictures: 6 historic tech items that were rescued from the trash

These pieces of technology history were almost lost for good until they were rescued from a dumpster, landfill, or recycling center

  • All technology, sooner or later, becomes obsolete at which point it’s often simply disposed of in one way or another and forgotten about. Sometimes that piece of technology is a one-of-kind or is historic for some other reason but its importance isn’t recognized at the time and it’s lost for good. Every once in a while, though, a historic piece of hardware or software is saved from such an inglorious fate through the hard work of those who appreciate its historic value or thanks simply to dumb luck. Use the arrows above to read about 6 historic tech items that were literally pulled out of a dumpster, landfill, or recycling center - or were rescued just before they made it into one.

  • Whirlwind I mainframe computer Project Whirlwind was begun at M.I.T. in 1944 at the behest of the U.S. Navy, which needed a universal flight simulator for training bomber crews during World War II. The result was Whirlwind I, a digital computer completed in 1951, under the direction of Jay Forrester at the Servomechanisms Lab. Whirlwind I consisted of 10,000 vacuum tubes and, initially, electrostatic tube memory. However, tube memory proved to be too slow for a system which needed to respond in real-time to a pilot’s actions. As a solution, Forrester developed the first magnetic core memory, which was installed in Whirlwind I in 1953 and went on to become the standard memory for digital computers. Whirlwind I was also the precursor to the Air Force’s SAGE air defense system. Whirlwind I was used until 1959, at which point it was deemed to expensive to continue operating. Project Whirlwind member Bill Wolf took possession of it, and leased it for $1 per year and used it until 1974, at which point he was prepared to scrap it. Digital Equipment Corporation founder Ken Olsen heard of this and literally diverted the truck that was taking Whirlwind I to the trash heap to DEC, where it was stored until 1979, when it went to the new Computer Museum in Boston. Today, Whirlwind I resides in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

  • JOHNNIAC mainframe computer The JOHNNIAC was a scientific computer built by RAND in 1953, based on a design by mathematician John von Neumann which itself was inspired by ENIAC, the world’s first electronic general purpose computer. The JOHNNIAC weighed 2 ½ tons and had 5,000 vacuum tubes and underwent many changes and upgrades over the years. Originally outfitted with tube memory, in 1955 it became one of the first computers to use magnetic core memory. It was also one of the first computers to support time sharing, through its JOHNNIAC Open-Shop System (JOSS) interactive programming language. The JOHNNIAC was used for 13 years before it was finally retired in 1966, one of the longest lived computers of its time. After retirement, JOHNNIAC was sent to the Los Angeles County Museum where, at some point in the years after, it was moved to an outdoor parking lot and left to rust. In 1989, it was rescued by the Computer Museum in Boston, just weeks before it was to be sent to a landfill. Today, it’s been refurbished and is now at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

  • Source code for the Atari 7800 ProSystem OS The Atari 7800 ProSystem was the second attempt by Atari, following the 5200 system, to come up with a successor to the hugely successful 2600 gaming console. Initially released in 1984, the 7800 was also meant to be a full blown home computer, through an expansion port for a keyboard and other peripherals. However, for a variety of reasons, fewer than 100 games were developed for the 7800 and the system never caught on, either as a gaming console or home computer, and production was discontinued in 1992. Four years later, when the Atari Corporation merged with disk drive maker JTS and essentially became defunct, diskettes containing the source code for the 7800’s OS and a handful of games were thrown into dumpsters behind the company’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, CA. Luckily, someone rescued those disks from the trash in the middle of the night and the code has since been made available for download by the Atari Museum.

  • E.T. The Extra Terrestrial game cartridges The Atari 2600 gaming console (known as the Video Computer System, VCS) was launched in 1977 and soon became a huge hit, selling 1 million units in 1979. Likewise, the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, released in 1982, was itself a phenomenon, becoming the highest grossing movie of the 1980s. Unfortunately, the combination of these two blockbusters, which took the form of the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial video game created for the Atari 2600 system, was a disaster of epic proportions. The game was created in about 5 weeks during the summer of 1982, to have it ready for that year’s holiday season. The highly compressed development time, however, contributed to it being considered one of the worst video games of all time. Despite selling 1.5 million units, good enough to make it one of the top-selling 2600 titles ever, 3.5 million units went unsold. The disappointing sales of E.T., along with the general crash of the video game market in 1983, contributed to huge losses for Atari and the company being sold in 1984. For years after, though, there were unconfirmed rumors that in September, 1983 Atari had buried truckloads full of game cartridges and equipment, including many E.T. cartridges, in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The rumor was finally confirmed in April 2014 when the landfill was excavated and the E.T. cartridges, along other unsold Atari inventory, saw the light of day for the first time in 30 years.

  • EDSAC mainframe circuit diagrams and chassis EDSAC (Electronic Data Storage Automatic Calculator) was one of the first (arguably the first) stored program computers in the world. Built by Maurice Wilkes and a team at the University of Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory, EDSAC ran its first program in May, 1949 and was used until until July 1958. The computer included 3,000 valves, took up 20 square meters, and used long tubes of mercury for memory. Among its many historical achievements, the concept of a programming subroutine was created for EDSAC by Cambridge student David Wheeler, while another Cambridge student, Alexander Douglas, created the world’s first video game to use a graphical display, called OXO or Noughts And Crosses (i.e., Tic-Tac-Toe), in 1952. In 2011, the UK’s National Museum of Computing commenced a project to build of replica of EDSAC. At the time, no original plans or parts were known to exist to use as a reference, but in 2014 a former engineer from Cambridge’s Math Lab, recalled that he saved a number of documents from being thrown out in 1959, which included 19 original EDSAC circuit diagrams. In addition, in early 2015, one of the original chassis, used to hold the thousands of valves in vertical racks, was donated by a man who had obtained the part from another man who bought several of the racks when EDSAC parts were auctioned off after its decommissioning, intending to use them as bookshelves. You can experience this historic computer for yourself at home using this EDSAC simulator.

  • An original Apple I computer Apple was born in a garage at the Los Altos, California home of Steve Jobs’ parents. It was there in 1976 that Steve Wozniak personally manufactured the first 50 Apple I computers that were sold through a computer store in Mountain View for the price of $666.66. Eventually, about 200 Apple I units were made, of which only about 60 remain today. Naturally, Apple Is are valuable collectors' items, often selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Apple I wasn’t a finished product like computers sold today. Instead, it was a complete circuit board, lacking a power supply, keyboard, and monitor which the buyer had to provide and connect. It’s understandable, then, how a person could mistake an original Apple I as just worthless, old computer parts, which is apparently what happened to a California woman who unknowingly dropped one off at a recycling center recently, among boxes of electronics belonging to her late husband. The recycling center sold the Apple I for $200,000 and is offering to give the woman half the money, if they can find her.

Show Comments